An open letter to Mr. Joel "Adults Should Read Adult Books" Stein
In response to this piece in the New York Times — a particularly fun addition to a growing list of major newspaper pieces by people who don’t read young adult fiction but publicly disparage it anyway.
Dear Mr. Stein,
You’re a humorist, yes? Your books (and possibly this column) are meant to be funny? That’s just ducky: good for you!
I don’t read humour writing, myself. Perhaps funny books are lovely, full of characters so alive you could swear you know them personally, like the works of Meg Rosoff. Maybe they can make the simplest language into a fully breathing description of the glory of the world, like the children’s books of E.B. White. Maybe they take the shattering pain that made Melinda from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak silence herself and turn it into crooked little smiles, smiles that hide too much. I don’t know because I don’t read anything that’s meant to be “funny.”
I’m sure it’s fine for some. I remember the boys in class who could get a laugh. The one with a line in fart jokes. The one who could burp the whole alphabet. Those kids grow up. They need something to read. Maybe they’ll even learn something from books like yours, who knows? Personally, whenever I see someone reading, say, Pratchett, I judge them instantly. You’d think they could at least get one of those classy leather book covers to hide their shame.
For my part, I’ll read humour books after I’ve finished the 3,000 years of writing that’s entirely serious. After all, books aren’t meant to be fun. They’re improving. That’s why teachers assign them.
Fair warning: reading the whole canon may take me a while. I’m currently stuck in the Greeks, and I’m not sure whether to re-read Antigone or Euclid’s Geometry. They’re both pretty serious, and yet, last time I read them, they both gave me delight. Hmmm. These genre distinctions are tricky. It’s almost as if they weren’t marks of quality at all.
Take John Green, for instance. I admit I skipped ahead of the Greeks a bit and read his book on kids with cancer, The Fault in Our Stars. I was sure it would count as serious — it’s got those breathing characters (only one of them can’t breathe very well). It’s got a Shakespearean riff for a title and a sort of metatextual problem of authorship point on which the plot turns. Plus, you know, it’s kids with cancer. How fun could it be? And yet I laughed so hard reading the egg-the-car scene that my husband made me read it to him, which made me laugh even harder, bittersweet crying real laughter that made snot bubbles come out my nose. But I swear I didn’t mean to read that. We Serious Readers are considering some kind of labelling system, warning against “mixed” books like this. Or possibly a fatwa.
Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your piece “Adults should Read Adult Books” and wish you good luck with your future “funny” work.
Yours in all seriousness,
Erin Bow Young Adult Author
Look for more New York Times “balance” pieces, including the one for the series on contemporary theatre (Maxin Kon’s “I’m a movie director and plays are for suckers”) and the one for series on artisan teas (“Grow up and drink coffee”).